Michelle Obama's transcendent moment

Thursday , June 06, 2013 - 2:08 PM

Helena Andrews

If it’s been true in past elections that what the average Joe Voter really wants is to share a beer with the president, then perhaps getting into a bar fight with the first lady will be 2016’s litmus test. As it stands, reaction to first lady Michelle Obama’s swift handling of a recent heckler fell heavily on the side of “You go, girl!” cementing the public’s already deeply entrenched crush on Obama -- and perhaps proving that she has transcended the race and gender stereotypes that used to dog her.

While giving a speech at a private fundraiser in Washington, on Tuesday night, Obama was repeatedly interrupted by a member of the audience who was there to do just that. “First lady heckler” 56-year-old Ellen Sturtz attended the $500-a-ticket event at the behest of Get Equal, an LGBT-rights advocacy group that seeks to “take bold action to demand full legal and social equality, and to hold accountable those who stand in the way.”

In the middle of the first lady’s impassioned speech, Sturtz began shouting about the “executive order,” referring to anti-discriminatory legislation that would ban federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and job applicants.

“One of the things I don’t do well is this,” replied the first lady coolly. “Do you understand?”

In an audio recording of the speech, you can hear Obama emphasize that last bit with all the restrained wrath of a grandmother in church reprimanding a kid with the giggles. According to the pool report from a reporter present, the first lady then left her lectern to confront the heckler directly, telling Sturtz, “Listen to me, or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”

None too surprisingly, the crowd loudly sided with Obama, Sturtz was escorted from the room and the first lady finished her speech. Game, set, match.

When news of the “incident” reached the Internet, most reactions in the vast comments-sphere were akin to that of the fundraiser’s audience -- raucous applause. Many made note of the incongruity in a statement made by Sturtz during an interview after the event.

“She came right down in my face,” Sturtz said of Obama addressing her directly. “I was taken aback.”

Protest is a right in these United States, but being “taken aback” by the fact that the first lady doesn’t suffer any fools is just plain wrong. Did Sturtz simply think herself above reproach? Or perhaps that the first lady, once dogged by persistent stereotyping, would choose to remain silent at an event where she was invited to speak out? On both counts, Sturtz misjudged Obama’s mettle.

Black folks immediately recognized Obama’s quick quip as familiar, with commenters on Twitter, Facebook and beyond sharing a virtual head nod and “umm-hmm” moment. “When a black woman says, ‘Do you understand?’ “ wrote one Gawker commenter, “that’s not a question; that’s a statement. Just reading that took me back. Mom did not play that!”

But what’s more is that most of the comment-box defenses (and even critiques) of the first lady weren’t rooted in racial politics at all. Obama, who struggled to shrug off the stubborn labels of being a “strong,” “militant” or “angry” black woman early on, has, for the most part, avoided those pejoratives in this case.

There was a time -- not too long ago -- when the comments section on every news site covering the heckling incident would have been flooded with vitriol spewed at the first lady. That predictably idiotic tide seems to have shifted. But make no mistake: Not everyone is sailing in the first lady’s direction, although the ride itself seems much smoother than in the past.

Whether or not folks agreed with Obama’s swift handling of the heckler or wished she had at least acknowledged Sturtz’s concerns, the point of contention boiled down to the respect due the first lady of the United States, instead of the respect due a black woman or black women’s stereotypical neck-jerk reactions.

Like it or not, Michelle Obama’s reaction to Sturtz was a Michelle moment, not a stereotypical black woman’s touchiness or a South Side time-out. It was simply the first lady being the first lady on her own terms, and for better or worse, that’s a step in the right direction.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root.

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